England players celebrate Joleon Lescott’s (second from left) goal, in Donetsk, on Monday
Donetsk: Good point, average creativity. England were under sustained pressure towards the end of their opening group D game but they held on and will take deserved satisfaction from this result, if not necessarily the display. It’s a good start though.
The French were more technical, more assertive through the likes of Franck Ribery and their terrific right-back, Mathieu Debuchy, comfortably the man of the match. Uefa awarded the honour to Samir Nasri, who had brilliantly equalised Joleon Lescott’s header, but Debuchy really impressed most.
England were all resistance, all defiance in the form of Scott Parker but they need more guile.
Ashley Young and particularly Danny Welbeck worked hard in attack while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hinted at his rich potential but Roy Hodgson’s side will need to improve in possession.
The stats said it all: France managed 20 attempts on goal to England’s five and 634 passes to England’s 307.
No matter. The fans admired the players’ industry and especially the point against the group D favourites. They had come from far and wide, using planes, trains and overdraft facilities to reach Donetsk.
The night came at a cost off the pitch, though, with the goalkeeping coach, Ray Clemence, snapping an Achilles during the pre-match warm-up. Concerns over the pitch saw the very average Italian referee, Nicola Rizzoli, consulting the fourth official before kick off and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Parker slipping in the first minute.
The first half saw the best and worst of England, of some lightning counters and then familiar failings in possession, giving the ball away, and defending so deep they were almost in the Crimea.
France initially settled swiftly, Nasri escaping Ashley Cole while Yohan Cabaye was looking neat and nimble in the centre, soon sliding a neat through pass to Ribery.
Ribery was really influential, finding Nasri wide, then ghosting past Parker.
England refused to be over-awed, soon racing through the gears, arrowing through the middle. Parker found Young, who cleverly guided James Milner through and all the England fans stood in anticipation.
The City man rounded Hugo Lloris. The angle was acceptable, but on his weaker, left foot, Milner could find only the side-netting.
Back came France, the ball moving unerringly between Ribery, Karim Benzema, Nasri and Cabaye, whose low shot was saved by Joe Hart.
England were relying on the swift counter, looking to the exuberance of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who danced between Alou Diarra and Cabaye. His through-pass just found Young offside. Oxlade-Chamberlain worked back to assist Cole in extinguishing the fires lit by Nasri and the excellent Debuchy. On the other flank, Milner was tracking back to help Glen Johnson deal with Ribery.
The heat was obvious, Johnson’s shirt soon clinging to his perspiring chest. When Adil Rami landed on Welbeck’s foot, the players seized the opportunity for a drinks break. France kept passing and moving.
Lescott gave the ball away. Blanc continued to suck on his lollipop. Nasri, increasingly a force, clipped the ball past Gerrard and Cole.
Welbeck, looking lively, was running at Philippe Mexes, who stood firm. No joy. As a patched-up Clemence was being helped into his seat behind the dug-out, Cole slid in to take the sting out of a Debuchy cross. England were defending well. John Terry made some important clearances.
On the half-hour, England broke through. Patrice Evra fouled Milner, gifting England a free-kick on the right. Ribery formed a modest one-man wall. Gerrard drilled the ball past him, Lescott eluded the slow-reacting Diarra and headed in.
After England had finished their mass celebrations, signs of concerns reappeared. Oxlade-Chamberlain slid in on Debuchy and was booked.
Nasri took charge of the free-kick, lifting it in to the box where Diarra flicked it goalwards. Hart responded superbly, pushing the ball out. Ribery nodded the ball back across but Diarra headed wide.
Six minutes from the break, England were caught out. Florent Malouda found Ribery, who knocked the ball back to Nasri. The City attacker’s response was outstanding, demonstrating his technique and vision.
Controlling the ball neatly, Nasri’s second touch sent it flying past a vainfully stretching Gerrard and then past a despairing Hart. Nasri beat Hart, City beating City.